Our pleasant bus ride through Alto Molise brings us across and over the valley to the breathtaking heights of Pietrabbondante, a village like no other, with a view like no other!
Pleasantly seated on our comfortable bus, sated by our simple yet hearty lunch of caciocavallo and prosciutto, and with the valley before us bathed in golden light, life was good. Back across the viaduct we passed, being increasingly driven into something of a trance, our weary legs, the delicate air conditioning and dreamy vista all conspiring in tandem to bring about sleep. Yet soldiering on through the fatigue proved a worthwhile endeavour, as every twist and turn in the road rewarded the aware traveller with a lookout to some vision of rustic perfection. Dotted along the valley was an array of small villages and towns, as though spots of terracotta paint dripped on the canvas of Mother Nature. Gone was the urban sprawl which defiles so much of once Arcadian Europe, instead a true harmony between man and land. May the truce hold fast, and hold long.
One such bend in the road cleared a steep escarpment, and thrust into view a formidable sight. Whether cliffs or truly vast boulders, one could not say. Towering overhead, as giants guarding the pass, they bestow an ominous anticipation on those who take this road, high above the valley floor. Weaving around to the right, all of a sudden a piazza came into view, with something of a hybrid feel between the South and Alpine Italy. Pietrabbondante is exquisitely small, yet not a hamlet, despite its relative isolation in Alto Molise. We asked the driver to ensure a bus would pass at some point to bear us back to Isernia. "Si, si, fra un paio di ore c'è" ("Yes indeed, there'll be one in a few hours"), came the reply, and heartened we were by the swiftness and boldness of his delivery.
Out we stepped onto the warm tarmac, and up we looked. Where minutes before there was looming rock, now looming bronze. A mighty warrior of Samnium stood yonder, his arm grasping for his blade, a defiant glare fixed towards the mortal enemy that was Rome. Yet this was no statue of Classical times, but a monument to the braves of Samnium who fell in the Great War of 1914. How it must have pained their forefathers to know their descendants would one day fight for the Rome they so despised. The warrior commands respect from visitors to Pietrabbondante, and serves as a reminder that this land deserves a great deal more than to be the butt of jokes that non esiste ('it doesn't exist').
The warrior stands before a rather odd looking edifice, which seems that it would be more at home in the far northern regions of Italy, yet it offers the traveller a choice, with two equally enticing streets branching either side of it. We chose to take the right. This turned out to be fortuitous, as we found the street to be heroically named Corso Sannitico, and has the feel of the artery of the town. But quiet, oh so quiet. A handful of elderly folk were to be seen seated before one of the very few cafes, but otherwise the town was apparently resting, or absent. The street was quite charming in its own right, with low palazzi looking over a beautifully cobbled carriageway, yet the great pillars of stone reared up in the distance, bestowing an ethereal charm to the place, as though it were floating in the Heavens.
The end of the Corso revealed a sight worthy of the most basic of Italian stereotypes. A bench, upon which sat a trio of nonne (grandmothers), one looking rather glumly out over the wall and at the view, and the other two fully embraced in a match of the thickest dialect, but seemingly discussing their grandchildren. One couldn't help but wonder, perhaps morbidly, whether they were themselves the kin of Pietrabbondante's brave men commemorated by the warrior in bronze. Their conversation appeared so lively and in such rigorous flow, and the expression of the third so acidic, we dared not strike up a word, and climbed the stairwell in the shadow of the rock.
The narrow street arced round, and before us a majestic church gazed down upon us from atop a wide stairwell. Santa Maria Assunta has an austere façade which belies its Baroque interior. It is also the focus of a most unusual rite in Italy, for on the Ides of August every year, the statue of the Virgin is borne aloft through the streets of the town on the shoulders of women, in a procession deeply held by women. Tradition and faith walk hand in hand in the South, and much of the North too, perhaps more than the modern city dweller would consciously admit. The church however, was sealed before us, it being that hour in which holy places take their afternoon rest in Italy, and so made our way to a slightly ajar iron gate on its flank. It was to be a detour that we would never forget.
At the Salita della Chiesa, the town suddenly stops, and yields its place once more to that idyllic pastoral landscape which so reigns in Alto Molise. A narrow dirt path, just a little overgrown, and sheltered on the one side by rocks, snakes its way higher and higher, until Santa Maria Assunta lies below you, and Heaven above. The climb is not as arduous as it first appears, and indeed only a few minutes and a short investment of energy, preferably yielded by caciocavallo, are in order to see you to the top.
There may be many peaks in Italy, many vastly higher than this, but few so fair. If the panorama from Agnone was spectacular, here the veil is torn from one's eyes. Here all but the entirety of Alto Molise unfurls before your eyes wherever you happen to turn. Forests, mountains, foothills, fields and meadows all lay before you in a symphony of green. No fewer than ten, and doubtless more, towns and villages can be made out, all understated, unintrusive and unbelievable. Straight out ahead, the town of Poggio Sannita straddles a razor thin ridge, as though the terracotta town itself were sliced out of the rock with a rusty blade. A small castle here, a grassy forest clearing there. There to the north lay Agnone, set in an emerald frame, the tone of her bells booming across the valley. A delicate wind blew, and a pair of snow white butterflies danced around us. No engine noise, no chatter, no hustle and bustle and no trace at all that the four centuries up to now had happened at all. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to sit in Italy, and we had it to ourselves. A great cross rose above us, sprouting from the rock. Much has changed in this world since Pietrabbondante was built, yet much survives. Here not merely beautiful architecture, but the very land itself. Here one could tell you the rest of the world does not exist, and you could believe them. So majestically peaceful was it all, we lay down for sleep on the soft grass, for what greater thing can a place bring, than peace within you too?
Perhaps mere minutes passed, perhaps an hour. In a place such as this, it could have been a decade and it would have changed naught. In the distance we spotted the ruins for which Pietrabbondante holds fame, yet as we descended back into the town, so too did the clouds. We liked to think that Mother Nature had preferred we remain atop that knoll.
Back up the Corso Sannitico, Katrina had need of an afternoon coffee, and thus with relief, James located what seemed to be the only cafe open, in a modest dwelling at the side of the street. It was a cosy place, with a welcome spread. After an awkward exchange, fumbling with the correct vocabulary for the tempting pastries, the proprietor asked where we were from. "Lei viene dall'Australia, ed io dal Regno Unito" (She's from Australia, and I'm from the United Kingdom"), James replied. The owner looked at James, and pounced with a "Aaaah ma voi state abbandonando Europa adesso eh?" ("Aaaaah, so you are all abandoning Europe now eh?"). His delivery made the situation a tricky one to read, as it wasn't fully clear if it was said with a hint of jest, sympathy, accusation or anger, or an alliance of the four. "Europa no, ma l'Unione Europea si"("Europe no, but the European Union - yes"), James replied. As a Briton living in Italy, talk of the imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union makes for frequent conversation. Tensions rise, and tempers fray, as the battle lines of the Europe of our times are being drawn, with polarising forces convulsing the Continent. Italy, once the great pillar of Europeanism, is now seeing the rise in rejection of it. Yet, at the end of it all, a continent forged by Rome two millennia ago is quite a different thing from the status quo which arose from the ashes of the second humbling of Germany, and her release from the iron grip of the red terror to the East. Sometimes the past can defuse a conflict as well as ignite it.
Our talk turned to Pietrabbondante. The proprietor, Amedeo, soon revealed himself to be a man who cared deeply for his town, and took pride in its antiquity. "Ha bisogno di fondi, c'era un progetto di costruire un museo qua, ma hanno fatto nulla" ("It needs funding, there was a plan to build a museum here, but they did nothing"), he recounted, with clear resentment. "Tutti i reperti belli che trovono, e li trovono spesso qui, tutti vanno sempre a Roma, e niente rimane qui" ("All the wonderful finds that they discover, and they often discover them here, all of them always go to Rome, and nothing remains here"), he continued, with both dejection and frustration. His passion was touching, and we would not forget his words. There was something striking indeed here, as we returned to the bronze warrior. Samnium roared with defiance at Rome in the days of the ancient Republic. It does still, in the days of the modern.
The piazza was still dormant when we returned, still as dreamy as before. Yet the words of Amedeo made us ponder. We headed left out of the town, in search of Samnium. This town was known by another name to the Samnites. There are some who hold that it could indeed be the site of ancient Bovianum Vetus, capital of the formidable Samnite Confederation. Rome would best Samnium, but would pay for her victory dearly in blood, treasure and pride. The Eternal City entered the war with these tribes as an enthusiastic amateur. When she emerged, she would be a hardened veteran, and that would be the force that would be unleashed on the Mediterranean. Even after conquest, Samnium had to be held down. Only the iron fist of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Dictator of Rome, military genius and the first man to march on Rome bearing arms since Coriolanus, would bring the Samnites to heel, when all Italy rose in revolt against Rome in the first century before Christ. Many centuries later, when Germanic peoples broke through the ancient frontiers and fell upon Italy, the Lombard tribes would give this place her new name - Petra Habundante - upon discovering the limestone citadels bursting through the ground. Thus would the centuries corrupt the Lombard tongue to that of Dante, and modern Italy, leaving the 21st century with Pietrabbondante.
Yet just shy of half a kilometre from the town, there are more stones. These are the stones which attract the lion's share of tourism to these parts, for they are what remains today of the Romano-Samnite city. Fierce mountain tribes though the Samnites may have been to Rome, they appreciated the art of theatre too. Indeed a fine example of one such monument lays on the slope of the hill just outside Pietrabbondante. It was the custom of the Greeks to build their theatres in places of dramatic nature, high up or looking out across valleys. It seemed that such a custom penetrated Central Italy too, for the theatre here overlooked that wondrous expanse of Alto Molise which we, in the course of but one day, and grown to love. The ruins of temples lay just at its back, though heavily worn by the passing of time, and fires of Rome. It may have grown to be a fine city indeed, alas the wrath of Sulla would all but extinguish the population of this tract of Samnium, and never again would it be inhabited. So forgotten was it, that the centuries would engulf the Sanctuary in alluvium, before the spades of the House of Bourbon would chance upon it again. A place of great sophistication one thrived here, built in the brick of Rome and stone of Samnium. Over two millennia have been and passed since the twilight of this place, and abandoned it is still.
It is said that Hannibal himself once came here, when he dared to face the inexorable will of Rome. Alto Molise would not have appeared much different in his day, and this was a strangely isolating thought. The ruins here are of a peculiar nature. Just complete enough in the right places to be impressive, though ruined enough too to bestow majesty on the past. In amongst the expertly cut blocks, there lie flourishes of beauty and character, be they symbols of fertility, or crouching deities. All silent witnesses to the terrible deeds wrought here in the past, now stony faces looking out over a flowered meadow, with naught but the breeze and soft birdsong. Here is the graveyard of Samnium, and at Pietrabbondante its living grandson, which is itself a grandfather.
As we walked back to Pietrabbondante after un paio di ore, we reflected on what had been a very different experience to Agnone. Where Agnone was beauty, Pietrabbondante was both wonder and trauma, living and dead. We awaited our bus back to Isernia, when an elderly gentleman hobbled past, dressed in a brown corduroy suit. He regarded us, not stopping, but evidently intrigued. "Ma di dove siete?" ("But, where are you from?"), he called out. Out we came with our formula, "Lei viene dall'Australia, ed io dal Regno Unito". "Inghilterra?... Bello!" ("England?.... Nice!"), he shot back, with a smile that revealed a dental history of great strife. He hobbled over under the bronze warrior, and spoke to a younger man, who may have been his son. His hand rose in our direction, as his mouth formed the words. "Ma c'è un inglese è un'australiana lì!" ("There's an Englishman and an Australian over there!"). We could not help but laugh, and smile back. Just then, our bus arrived, with a punctuality which would have made Mussolini proud, as darkness began to descend on Alto Molise.